Tag Archives: Montreal Comedy Scene

Dave Chappelle at Just For Laughs – Wednesday July 24th 2013

Dave Chappelle
Dave Chappelle

It was a tad curious.

The DJ kept telling us not to interact with Mr. Chappelle. Three times at least.

Odd because interacting with the crowd often leads to some great moments in live comedy; as an example, interacting with the crowd made for some unexpectedly hilarious and heart warming moments during Aziz Ansari’s recent last-minute double show at the Comedy Works a little while back. But to be told specifically not to shout things out came as a surprise to me, particularly when we were warned we risked getting tossed should any of us break this golden rule.

It seems not everyone got the message.

Long story short, an enjoyable show – but I’m easy to please. I saw the 19h30 show last night and I think I got the better deal. My brother saw the 21h30 show (which didn’t actually start until 23h00) and felt he didn’t quite get his money’s worth.

But my brother made sure to point out it wasn’t Mr. Chappelle that ruined the show (for him), but rather the apparent fans in the audience.

Ah… Montreal ‘fans’, bane of performers everywhere.

Call it unbridled enthusiasm, I just thought it was rude. Those calling out towards the end of the performance seemed to know less than nothing about the performer – such as the fact that it was Charlie Murphy who interacted with Prince and Rick James. Call it the frat boy problem that dogs too many live performances in this city.

Mr. Chappelle hasn’t set foot on a Montreal stage in some thirteen years – the last time he performed Just for Laughs he was still two years away from the launch of the groundbreaking and critically acclaimed Chappelle’s Show; arguably he was still on his way up back then – young, fresh, daring, bold. Today he’s a married dad, a forty year old man. It shows. He’s patient and also highly selective, choosing when to engage his audience and more confident when ignoring the outbursts of over enthusiastic spectators ‘lookin’ fer laffs.’

From what my brother told me, the later show featured about twenty minutes of awkwardness so thick and cringeworthy the audience embarrassed him. I only had to contend with about five minutes’ worth of such nonsense as that.

This is an issue I’ve discussed many times before – Montreal audiences and ‘fans’ can be very difficult to deal with. Case in point, the infamous closing show of Pink Floyd’s 1977 Animals world tour, the show Roger Waters credits as laying the foundation for what would become The Wall. And this is saying nothing of the well documented poor attitudes of Montreal fans vis-a-vis the Habs. I wouldn’t wish a career playing hockey in Montreal to even the worst, most asinine of professional hockey players – Montreal fans can be brutal, unforgiving.

Last night, they were just fools.

I’ll tell myself Just for Laughs is a big international festival and it’s completely possible those causing trouble were from out of town, Torontonians or Bostonites most likely, but either way, it left a bad aftertaste. I honestly hope it doesn’t perturb Mr. Chappelle and make him think twice about what I’m assuming is some kind of a return to active touring and new material.

In any event, I’m getting ahead of myself.

First things first – Place des Arts and Just for Laughs need to figure out a more efficient method of handling ticket pick-ups prior to the show, especially when there are four or five shows going on simultaneously. I spoke with a PdA security guard who said the line-up to pick up tickets (which stretched all the way outside, up St-Urbain towards the new concert hall) was pretty much standard and it was fucking everything up. I asked him what he would’ve done differently, and without skipping a beat he smiled and said ‘four guichets for Monsieur Chappelle, one for everything else.’

Fortunately I didn’t have to stand in line (keep your electronic tickets on your phone, so the QR code can be scanned (a message for my older, Baby Boomer readers)) and was comfortably seated up in the balcony of Theatre Maisonneuve sometime just before eight. Opening act, delightfully, was Hannibal Buress, an excellent choice to warm up the audience. The bit about why rappers discussing their enjoyment of MDMA (otherwise known as Ecstasy or, perhaps more softly, Molly) as being antithetical to the stated aim of appearing hard was the highlight of his brief warm-up routine (“there I was, smiling, masturbating to the colour blue, mumbling something about being in a gang…”).

Chappelle hit the stage a little while later after a brief interlude by the DJ who reminded us, for the umpteenth time, not to heckle the talent or yell out for any reason. Lights went Christmastime red, vinyl spun silently in the background as the DJ seemingly disappeared under the stage, and Dave Chappelle, hero of my youth, waltzed out on stage puffing away on the first of many, many cigarettes.

So strike one – yes, I know he smokes, I smoke too, I fucking love smoking. And Mr. Chappelle enjoys smoking while doing stand-up, something JFL management and/or Place des Arts seemed okay with (you’ll remember Dave asked Crack Mayor Ford if he could smoke indoors at a show in Toronto about a year ago, a request which was denied by the worst mayor in Canadian history). But it’s not like we, the common people, can smoke in the venue, that’s strictly verboten. And while I can understand a comedian who enjoys smoking going to some length to acquire a special privilege for him or herself, this is Montreal, and we like tobacco more than South Carolina, so it’s a bit of a dick move. Maybe he argues that he’d be far too stressed out otherwise, but to be perfectly frank his chain smoking was giving me the urge. That he chain smoked through the set was a bit much, and I wonder if it didn’t set the best tone, even at a very subconscious level, and facilitated the kind of audience goonery which rendered my brother’s later show so unbearable. He’s flaunting the rules after all, so why should the audience behave?

Although I don’t know with any certainty, I would swear Mr. Chappelle’s preparing for a new tour – ten shows in Montreal, after all, with brand new material from what I can tell. What’s tending me towards this line of thinking is that he’s doing something previously unheard of (i.e. performing ten shows at a single comedy festival, selling each out and grossing nearly a million dollars for Just for Laughs, proving he’s still a viable act even if his sets are largely experimental and basically turning his back on the television show that brought him such prominence).

There were times I thought I was looking at a re-imagined George Carlin, or a more relaxed Bill Hicks – not because the set was particularly political, but because the social commentary was striking, poignant first, with jokes placed strategically to prevent the subject matter from sinking the mood. Deftly placed humour to address some very serious issues. But it also seemed like he was wincing at the thought of being a political humorist, yet found himself caught in the story he was telling. As I said before, he’s got the world weariness young dads tend to develop – you change enough diapers nothing phases you anymore; at one moment he simply declared a joke dead and moved on – it demonstrated his objective detachment from his own material, yet also recalled the impish prankster demeanour that characterized his earlier material. Dave Chappelle has this quality where I feel I’m watching a man entertain himself first and foremost and I just happen to be in the same room. He has a way of playing the joke on the audience, steering them.

I understood the reason why they wanted to minimize shouting out; we were watching a rehearsal.

On the whole I’m immensely satisfied, but also a tad disappointed with the yahoos who couldn’t quite grasp a comedian beyond corporate comedy channel soundbites.

Put another way, I haven’t yelled ‘I’m Rick James bitch!’ in a bar in about ten years and I’m embarrassed that I once thought it was cool. I was young once…

But to the guy who imitated Chappelle imitating Lil John, I don’t think you came off as bringing comedy to dizzying new heights of metatude. Rather, as Dave put it “buddy, that’s not even me, that’s Lil John.”

And that’s probably going to be a problem for Mr. Chappelle for as long as he remains a touring comedian. I can imagine having to contend with legions of ostensibly adoring fans who shout out their (all too often pitifully) poor water-cooler impressions really nauseating, depressing.

But doing ten shows with Montreal audiences will give anyone a thick skin; like I said before, I really hope I saw a rehearsal yesterday. The world could use a lot more Dave Chappelle.


After some comments, tweets and emails I feel I should clarify a couple of points.

One – I like what I saw and enjoyed it despite the aforementioned problems.

Two – if what I saw was actually a ‘rehearsal’ for something more comprehensive (such as a new comedy special, world tour or album), then I’m beyond honoured as a Montrealer that Mr. Chappelle would choose to hone his skill here. It makes sense to me that this might be the case (though perhaps I’m too hopeful) given Mr. Chappelle’s connection to the festival, that there’d be a very sympathetic (and for the most part, supportive) audience and the opportunity to hang out with hundreds of other comedians. Am I crazy or is Just for Laughs a good place to get in some practice?

Three – I like comedy in the raw. The JFL galas tend to be very polished, relentless even. Guaranteed laughs for everyone so nobody leaves disappointed. This was different. I’m pretty well versed in Chappelle’s back catalogue so I had no interest in hearing the old bits rehashed, I wanted something new and different and I got precisely what I wanted. I would pay to see Mr. Chappelle under similar circumstances again without hesitation. He’s an excellent comedian, and that’s an understatement.

Four – I need to make this point really clear. I’m not overly concerned about the late starts. As I mentioned earlier, part of the problem lies in how tickets are distributed – this is a problem between JFL and PdA, not Dave Chappelle. Moreover, expecting a comedian who is doing 10 shows over a short period of time to be punctual is unrealistic (and another reason to choose the earlier show). He’s mobbed by fans before and after and if sets go well they go longer than expected. If he was late to my brother’s show, it’s only because he had a (generally) good time with us. Furthermore, unlike a Wu Tang Clan show I saw six years ago, there was an opening act and a competent DJ.

Five – My main concern is that the rambunctious and inconsiderate audience my brother had to contend with is more indicative of Montreal audiences in general, and if this is the rule rather than the exception, I worry whatever interest Mr. Chappelle may have in getting back in the game may dissipate, and if the case I’d be disappointed.

Six – Frankly, if I ever tried stand-up I’d want to chain smoke too, and would pursue every opportunity to do so. That said, I’d also encourage the audience to smoke to their heart’s content, pointing out the hypocrisy of festival and venue management.

Anyways, hope that makes this exceptionally long revue a little clearer.

Aziz Ansari at the Montreal Comedy Works

Aziz Ansari - not the work of the author
Aziz Ansari – not the work of the author

So I’m on the train heading back home last night scrolling through my Twitter feed. Halfway back to the forgotten Pierrefonds section of the city I see that Aziz Ansari had added a second show for 10pm last night.

Fuck me, I thought, how did I miss that there was a first one?

As I sat there feeling like a jerk I was bothered by the fact that, as of next week, this wouldn’t have been a problem. Pierrefonds is technically but a 25 minute train ride from Gare Centrale, but for all practical purposes is far further away, especially if you depend on public transit to get around. Suffice it to say I felt there’d be no chance of seeing this show; I’d have to turn around immediately once I got to Pierrefonds and had no way of securing the tickets outside of physically going to the Montreal Comedy Works on Bishop, a place I realized I hadn’t been to in about a decade.

Next week things will be different (moving downtown), but I couldn’t just leave it alone. A determination starting brewing inside me – I had to see this show. I was still kicking my ass for missing Charles Bradley at the Virgin Corona a little while back.

A friend texts me and asks what I had planned for the evening. Perfect. We make plans to see the show; I’d get home, eat something quick and turn right back around. Timing is key and fortune favours the bold. We get there with time to spare, seats with our names on them.

Outside the club waiting to go in we come across local comedian Rodney Ramsey (who’s been involved with the hilarious Language Police series) who informed me as to the thinking behind the Ansari show being a kind of crowd-sourcing initiative – a Twitter blast that got about 100 eager fans out to see Ansari try out some new material. Brilliant idea really – friendly crowd with a room small enough you’re guaranteed an appreciative audience. Catch Rodney’s act whenever you can, man’s got some excellent material and fascinating insights. We talked a lot about the Montreal English-language comedy scene, one which is very small yet manages to quite successfully punch well above its weight. It’s an odd situation – the city with the world’s largest bilingual comedy festival has comparatively few dedicated comedy clubs (I can only think of two, the other being the Comedy Nest at the Forum, which if memory serves once was both comedy and jazz club, the latter not working out any better than any of the other cockamamy ‘entertainment services’ once provided by the Pepsi Forum Entertainment Complex™). Apparently open mic nights and travelling comedy shows playing at diverse venues is a little more common. I’m looking forward to getting back into the scene – I’m rarely disappointed by live comedy, especially when it’s godawful – those make for some good anecdotes you can later use to amuse your friends. Rodney made a good point about Sugar Sammy, the current darling of the Montreal comedy scene, in that Sammy quite literally created a market no one thought could be created. Bilingual comedy? T’es fou toé? I wish them both much success; bilingual comedy may not work in every market but may work quite well in Canada as a whole. It’s unique and takes observational, improvisational and absurdist humour to new heights – knowing many languages is a huge asset across the board, and the kind of thing a country as well-educated as ours may appreciate.

In any event, on to the show.

I started watching Ansari’s stand-up after being introduced to him in Parks and Recreation, an excellent anti-sitcom in the style of the American version of The Office which has brought the comedy talents of Amy Poehler, Audry Plaza, Ansari, Chris Pratt, Nick Offerman, Retta and Rashida Jones to a broad audience. Ansari’s character, the vain and materialistic yet smooth-despite-himself Tom Haverford, is one of my favourites because the character is executed so perfectly, with precise consistency. He’s outlandish and the interaction with Jean-Ralphio (Ben Schwartz) has made for some of the most gut-bustingly hilarious TV I’ve seen in a while. As ridiculous the character is, he’s fundamentally sweet and generally well-intentioned, and I’m sure I’ve met someone like him before.

Ansari’s set was well-balanced, ramping up and ramping back down with a middle section of sustained laughter. He also completed a number of conversational ‘loops’ throughout the set, though more predominantly towards the end, bringing his new material full circle. He began more or less the way he finished, closing a multi-faceted set on the perils and objective hilarity of dating and human relations. It was fresh enough, original enough so as not to be clichéd in and of itself, though I’ll grant that the subject is well worn in my personal opinion.

Who cares though; being single nearly always results in some kind of hilarity. There was more than one time during the show I felt he was talking to me, of my experiences. I’m sure there were a lot of people feeling the same way. And that points to one of Ansari’s primary strengths – he’s really personable.

This point made itself apparent when he began interacting with the audience, including one point in which, in discussing how relationships get going, he read an audience member’s text messages to his girlfriend of but a few weeks. The sophistication, humour and all-around loveliness of the man’s texts delighted Ansari who quite clearly appreciated the sincerity of the messages inasmuch as having the flow of his bit interrupted. He made reference to finding flat-out stupid texts coming from audience participants in other cities.

Maybe it’s a Montreal thing. A variation on this theme later on had Ansari asking a couple how long they had been together and how they met. A similarly unexpected lovely result ensued, but Ansari’s genuine enjoyment transformed part of the bit to having him orchestrate a kind of mass appreciation of successful dating and finding love. It was really quite sweet, and funny as all hell.

In any event, given he’s testing out new material I suppose I won’t comment any further as to the content of the set, but will close by saying this: good job, it was really great and made for an excellent evening. Thanks Aziz!

And also – hat’s off to Comedy Works for pulling this off so expertly, and keep it up. I could definitely use more of this ‘drive-by’ comedy. Short notice, crowd-sourced, small venue – good recipe for success.